For the last few years, I’ve been referred to as an activist. Me? Little old me, happiest in front of the telly, moving only for crisps? Me, not into party politics? Me, an eejit? And yet, it’s a title I’ve been given since I started speaking out against what I see as unfairness, even if only to make a comedy sketch about it.
Activism, I’ve learned, is simply doing whatever you can, according to your circumstances. For me, it’s dusting the crisp crumbs off myself and writing something. Or taking up invitations to speak, when I have the right experience to do so. Is it my own story? OK, then. Mostly, I’ve talked about repro rights. But I was also vocal during the marriage equality referendum. When asked, I, a straight eejit, would speak as an ally: someone who didn’t think my mates should have fewer rights, just because of who they loved.
I’ve spoken as someone in an inter-racial marriage – which means I always assume someone is cross with me. I see up-close what racism does, but I will never experience it; no, not even "reverse racism". In a society where many say "flesh-coloured" when they mean "beige", it’s clear there’s a systemic viewing of one colour as a kind of default. And I am that colour.
So though I may take stick for my accent, or beliefs, I won’t be discriminated against because of my race, certainly not at a societal level. And it’s still not racism when someone makes me uncomfortable by showing me that I have a blindspot that’s making me unkind, unbeknownst to myself. Knowing that my blindspot has an ugly name – racism, transphobia, ableism, internalised misogyny - needn’t make me feel attacked.
In fact, it can make me a better ally. If I just breathe through the discomfort and realise that if someone’s taking the time to try to explain how I messed up, I might see it’s because they haven’t written me off. They feel I can learn. There’s hope. And that’s a beautiful thing.
I’ve spoken a lot recently about the need for allies to step up. Go sit with someone who’s suffered racist abuse on a train. Take your mate who’s telling sexist jokes aside. But there’s another radical part of allyship that doesn’t get talked about enough: not talking.
Sometimes the most important thing an ally can do is shut the eff up. I mean it. An ally stands with, they don’t, must never, speak for. The problem is that people mean well. Most people, I firmly believe, don’t have hate in their hearts. So when they misstep and say something that harms an individual or group, they double down when the misstep is pointed out.
"I didn’t mean it like that!"
"I’m just telling you the effect it has."
"No, you, the person who lives with the consequences, are wrong!"
It’s important to mention that when a group faces real life, physical danger, we must actively resist commentary which dismisses their reaction as "taking offense". You take offense when someone doesn’t like your crisp-crumb-covered outfit. Someone normalising your marginalisation, making you the subject of jokes or "civilised debate" (ugh), is a far more chilling prospect. Not civil at all, when you think about it. It’s OK to have questions. Good, even! It’s OK to be confused about terminology, or curious about an experience you don’t share. But then listen to those who live it. A detached – even well-meaning – commentator can’t possibly fill you in. It’s just opinion. Well researched, maybe (though usually not as rigorous as they believe: blind spots are mad yokes), but opinion nonetheless.
So, allies, let’s shut up sometimes. Bump up and make room. ‘Nothing about us without us’ is a great guideline: is the person telling the story qualified to tell it? It’s up to us to holler – or switch off - if they’re not. Why would you have a discussion about a group without them, or have that group present only to justify their right to exist? As allies, we can help by asking for better from our media. Right now, many are fuelling the ‘isms’ and phobias with ‘both sides’ nonsense for clicks and theatre. ‘Just asking questions’, but speaking over the group when they reply.
"I’m not racist/ sexist/ transphobic, but…"
I don’t like big BUTs and I cannot lie.
Discrimination doesn’t start with a cross blazing on a lawn. It starts with dehumanising. Speaking about people as a theory or thought experiment. Very often, those who self-describe as in the middle on an issue are often…just…safe. So let’s suss out our own blindspots, calm down when we find them (we all of us will), have chats. And listen. Listen. Listen. We might just learn something we were absolutely sure we hadn’t missed.